Generation 460, 1180-1200. The commentator, the shaykh and the sage.

This generation saw three towering figures, all of whom had been born in moslem Spain, each of whom was hugely influential in their own way.

Let’s start with the oldest of the three. Ibn Rushd, or Averroes as he was known in the north, was born in Cordoba, the capital of al-Andalus in 1126 and died in 1198. He served the new rulers, the Almohad dynasty that had moved up from Morocco in his lifetime. He was a qadi or judge in Seville. He studied law, medicine, astronomy and physics. But his greatest influence came after an invitation in 1160 from the Almohad caliph to write a summary of the writings of Aristotle, which were difficult to  understand.

This was his hobby for the next thirty years. He wrote three commentaries, known conveniently as the short, medium and long commentaries, on the writings of Aristotle available to him. The short commentary was a summary, and the long commentary a line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph analysis.

Averroes was convinced that the truth is the truth, and truth cannot contradict itself. So if Aristotle’s writings are true, they should not fundamentally contradict the revelations of the holy books, the bible and the quran. And he found much to agree with in the works of Aristotle. He looked for a synthesis.

His works were translated into latin and caused convulsions in the north, as we have seen. Thomas Aquinas read them a few generations later. He gave Aristotle the epithet of ‘The Philosopher’ and referred to Averroes as ‘The Commentator’. Personally, I would go so far as to say that a line can be traced from the rational enquiry in the writings of Averroes through Thomas Aquinas’ attempts to incorporate them into the catholic christian worldview, to the modern scientific method.


This statue of Averroes is in Cordoba, the city where he was born.

The youngest of these three remarkable men was Ibn Arabi, born in Murcia in 1165. Although he was educated in al-Andalus he spent most of his life in the middle east and died in Damascus in 1240.

He wrote voluminously, hundreds of books. He was also interested in synthesis, not of the head as with Averroes, but that of the heart. Whereas Averroes wanted to understand reality, Ibn Arabi believed that it can be known and experienced.

He believed that there were many roads to truth. As well as the prophet Mohammed he had a particular reverence for Jesus Christ and Moses, believing that each had connected to different facets of the greater reality. Because of what had come through them it was possible for others to make that same connection. He believed that the two genders had equal stature (something that gladdens the heart of this writer, being of the female gender).

Here is an example of his writing:

Listen, O dearly beloved!

I am the reality of the world, the centre of the circumference,

I am the parts and the whole.

I am the will established between Heaven and Earth,

I have created perception in you only in order to be the object of my perception.

If then you perceive me, you perceive yourself.

But you cannot perceive me through yourself,

It is through my eyes that you see me and see yourself,

Through your eyes you cannot see me.

A thread can be traced from Ibn Arabi through to Sufism and the mystical tradition that continues to the present. He is still known as the shaykh, the master.

The third of our trio was jewish, not moslem, and was known as the sage, the wise man. Moses Maimonides was born in Cordoba a decade after Averroes, also into a well-connected family. But the new Almohad dynasty was less tolerant of jews than its predecessors, and when he was a young man the Maimonides family prudently decided to leave Spain. After travelling across north Africa they settled in Cairo, where Moses died in 1204.

He also had a wide-ranging education. He was interested in the law. And like his two compatriots that we have met he looked for synthesis. His most famous book is ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ which looks at the works of Aristotle and attempts to reconcile them with the jewish tradition of the bible.

One of the dilemmas he explored was about the oneness of God. How can we say that God is just? Indeed, how can we attribute any qualities to God? To do so is to say that there is God and something else, the justness or other quality that is separate from God. This is idolatry! It was safer to say what God is not rather than what God is, in his view.

As an educated man he also studied medicine. He became physician to the family of the sultan Saladin (who recaptured Jerusalem from the Franks during this generation). He also wrote his own version of the Hippocratic Oath, which rings with humanity:

“The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures.

May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.

May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.

Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements.

Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today.

Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling.”


This statue of Maimonides is also in Cordoba.

Thomas Aquinas read his writings and incorporated his ideas in his own synthesis. Maimonides has also influenced jewish thought down to the present day.

The works of these three men were translated into latin in Toledo, which had been conquered by the christians from the moslems a century earlier. Individual christian men from the north were drawn to the learning like moths to a flame, where they collaborated with the jews and moslems living there to translate the huge number of books available. One such was Gerard of Cremona, who introduced the north to Claudius Ptolemy’s hugely influential Great Treatise on astronomy, now known by its arabic name of ‘Almagest’.This was the standard text on astronomy until the Copernican revolution three centuries later.

This was the magnificent final flowering of al-Andalus. In the following generation the christian reconquista defeated the Almohads. The translation movement continued for a few generations more, and then it was also gone.


One thought on “Generation 460, 1180-1200. The commentator, the shaykh and the sage.

  1. Pingback: Great human achievements. Generations 451-452, 1000-1040 | How did we get to here from there?

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